And the Pieces Come Together … the 2023 Final Report of the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Fund

by Dr. Heidi M. Szpek

As 2023 comes to an end, this final report details the restoration accomplishments of the US-based Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Fund (BCRF). Despite the utter chaos of our world today, planned and unplanned projects, as well as the discovery of historic details, foundational to this cemetery’s proper restoration, for some inexplicable reason are finally coming together. The discovery, clarification and conjoining of these seemingly disparate pieces was not accomplished by one individual. Rather – to be somewhat cliché, it takes a village. In the case of the BCRF, it is an international village! 

This year brought an international group of volunteers from the US, including two Suffolk University students from Boston, volunteers from Germany, from Israel as well as local Polish volunteers, including a dedicated contingent of students from the University of Bialystok. This year also saw the return of nearly 20 members of the Pearlson Family from Israel. In 2019, several Pearlson family members traveled to Bialystok to restore the tombstones of their grandmother and great-grandmother. (A gallery of our volunteers can be viewed HERE.) Critical for the restoration projects described below were the efforts of Filip Szczepanski, representative of the Rabbinic Council for Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, Aleksander Schwartz, Zapomnanie (Poland), Warsaw conservator, Bartosz Markowski, Bialystok BCRF Board Member Andrzej Rusewicz and the City of Bialystok. Work in Bialystok, Poland was conducted at two work sites: excavation of a mound on the former Rabbinic Cemetery now buried beneath Central Park, conducted from August 2-7, 2023; and restoration and documentation of Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery, held from August 2-22, 2023. 

BCRF Chair Josh Degen, BCRF staff Piotr Ciborowski with members of the Pearlson Family.

Beneath Bialystok’s Central Park is the former Rabbinic Cemetery, partially vandalized by the Nazis and subsequently covered with post-War rubble under Communism. In a mound, situated at the southwestern corner of Bialystok’s Central Park near the Opera House, 20 boulder-style matzevoth were unearthed, scattered helter-skelter. They dated from 1850-1856, nine for women, one for a girl, and 10 for men. These matzevoth match in all details (style, stone, orthography, age) the latest matzevoth also unearthed in the Bagnowka Mound in 2022. Most poignant, however, was the discovery of one Orthodox tombstone on August 4, 2023, which was returned to the nearby Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene. The human remains found in this mound like those found in the Bagnowka Mound were reinterred on Bagnowka, following rabbinic law as dictated by Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich. (Please visit Here for more on the Mound Matzevoth.)

This year’s restoration work on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery brought the total number of reset tombstones to nearly 2000 since the BCRF began in 2016. Nearly 400 tombstones were reset; 169 new records (available Here) were documented, with 451 incomplete records reclaimed – these are vital details that needed extra analysis to record. These documentation efforts were made possible this year because Israeli epigrapher, Asher Arbit and his wife, Paula, joined Dr. Heidi Szpek and her husband, Frank Idzikowski, in the critically important but tedious task of documentation. This year matzevoth-care was coordinated by BCRF Amy Halpern Degen, made more proficient because the City of Bialystok had installed a water hookup just outside the main entrance. Assisted by Leslie Sutcliffe (CA), artist and professor, and a revolving contingent of local and international volunteers, more than 50 tombstones were cleaned and painted, their inscriptions sealed with a gloss varnish. Neka Vladimirov, one of the Suffolk University volunteers with Russian language training, also provided translations of previously undocumented Hebrew-Russian inscriptions. Over the next few months, the Bagnowka database will be transferred to the burial records of the Jewish Worldwide Online Burial Registry (JOWBR), with photos for each record along with vital details and bi-annual updates following each restoration season.

Unique Epigraphic Discoveries

Each year brings remarkable epigraphic discoveries on Bagnowka. 2023 was no different. Six are most provocative. While several dual tombstones have been recorded on Bagnowka, this year the BCRF discovered the first triple tombstone, which remembered a mother and two young children killed at home on October 18, 1921. The Yiddish newspaper, Dos Naye Lebn, reported that while the father was out caring for his horse and two other children were at their grandmother’s house nearby, an explosion was heard by neighbors, who also reported the presence of Russian soldiers. This massive horizontal matzevah (24”H x 66” L), buried beneath decades of detritus, stands beside the tombstone of the children’s paternal grandmother, who died in 1930. Another ‘first’ this year was the discovery of a two-sided tombstone for a husband and wife, Gershon Meir Sokolski (d. May 1929) and Peshe (d. April 1932). The tombstone is in row 9 of a section near Chief Rabbi Halpern’s ohel; Gershon’s epitaph facing west, the traditional orientation. Peshe’s epitaph faces east but presumably her remains are in row 10, dedicated to women. What a statement of an eternal bond between husband and wife! One wonders what pre-planning occurred to have this burial plan in place. In a wooded section just cleared by the City of Bialystok, an exquisitely preserved Ashkenazi tombstone with extensive black paint was reset. Dating to November 1925, its ornamentation is reminiscent of the epaulets and badges of rank on Gen. Josef Pilsudski’s uniform. This ornamental parallel was noted by Wojciech Młotkowski, guide to Bialystoker Judith Rosenberg, who visited this August.  The BCRF will explore options for use of QR Codes on Bagnowka via Młotkowski’s organization, offering a minimum of a 20-year guarantee on retaining QR Code information.

Though Hebrew is the religious language of most tombstone inscriptions, vernacular inscriptions in Yiddish, Russian, German and Polish are not uncommon. Documentation of Bagnowka has revealed occasional epithets in Polish (“dear one”), closing blessings (“May his/her ashes be at peace”) and remembering, for example, that the deceased was a graduate of Vilna or Warsaw Universities. Yet this year, a Polish poem in cursive script and literary language was discovered on the obverse of a base. No biographical details are extant save reference in the poem to an epidemic that took the life of a precious son. The surrounding inscriptions date to c. 1915. The first recorded cholera outbreak in Bialystok was in 1830, which necessitated the establishment of the Bema (Cholera) Cemetery. It is possible cholera once again erupted or the reference to an epidemic at this time might be to the Spanish Flu of 1918, which ravaged much of the world.

Sleep peacefully our dear son.
Harsh fate snatched you from our embrace
Your life has fallen victim to the epidemic.
Our first ray of sunshine in this world has gone out
To the unlamented son
from grieving Parents

(translated by Dr. Andrzej Rusewicz)

Another small Ashkenazi matzevah, with the most extensive yellow and black paint still extant, was also unexpectedly discovered. US volunteers, Charlie Cohn and his wife, Leslie Sutcliffe, came to restore the tombstone of Charlie’s great-grandfather, Noah Hendil Kagan (d. November 1911) while contributing to restoration efforts. Amidst restoration work they also looked for other ancestors. Thanks to The Place director and curator, Dr. Tomasz Wisniewski, an additional ancestral tombstone was discovered for another relative, Mendel Kagan (February 1909). This tombstone is currently under restoration with Warsaw conservator, Bartosz Markowski.

Finally, in the days following this year’s restoration, the oldest extant tombstone was discovered in a section that erroneously was cleared in anticipation of restoration work. In this most eastern section of Bagnowka, Dr. Szpek chanced upon the oldest extant matzevah, that of “Yehiel Michal, son of Bentsion.” He died on 25 Tevet 5651 [24 December 1890] – just three days short of one year BEFORE this cemetery was officially dedicated. This tombstone suggests that burials did occur before the official dedication of this cemetery in December of 1891. 

Ancestral Reunification

Perhaps the greatest reward, however, of the 2023 Summercamp was the onsite ancestral reunification for six families. Some ancestors made planned trips to Bialystok and Bagnowka like Charlie Cohn and Leslie Sutcliffe (CA/USA), Judy and John Rosenberg (MA/USA), Michael and Brian Yellin (MA/USA), and the Pearlson Family (Israel and US). For the Pearlson Family, this was the second time they visited and volunteered. In 2019, several members from Israel and the US came to restore their great and great-grandmother’s tombstones. This year nearly 20 family members came to work and, by chance, located an additional four ancestral graves. For two families (Kwiat and Kaszcznewski), chance brought them to Bialystok. A youth tour in nearby Tykocin and a free afternoon with an amenable guide brought a Kwiat family young woman (USA) to Bagnowka where Dr. Szpek, engaged in pre-Summercamp planning, guided her to the gravesite of her great-great-great grandfather. The Kaszcznewski family (Israel) traveling to Vilnius stopped in Bagnowka based on a sentence in an ancestor’s book that mentioned an ancestral gravesite. The tombstone was located by Dr. Szpek and reset by BCRF Chair Josh Degen amidst a community tour of Bagnowka, allowing residents to view first-hand the potential of utilizing machinery in the restoration project. On the family’s return to Warsaw, they once again visited the cemetery and painted their ancestral tombstone.

Restoration of the Memorial Pillar

Restored Memorial Pillar, November 2023
Memorial Pillar, August 2022.

The crowning achievement of BCRF’s 2023 restoration efforts, however, is the full restoration of the Memorial Pillar that remembers victims of the 1906 Pogrom and two 1905 massacres in Bialystok. The restoration journey of this historic monument was documented step-by-step on Facebook and is now also available on the BCRF website. Special thanks are extended to the exceptional stone conservation skills of Warsaw conservator, Bartosz Markowski, RCC representative, Filip Szczepanski, who oversaw this project, local liaison and BCRF Board Member Andrzej Rusewicz, who coordinated onsite work, as well as principal fundraisers, BCRF Board Members Amy and Josh Degen. The names on this pillar are available HERE but will soon be part of JewishGen’s Memorials & Plaques Database thanks to the efforts of JewishGen’s Nolan Altman.

While the pillar is fully restored with landscaping planned for Spring 2024, there are still unknown details about the pillar’s pre-1981 history. (In 1981, the pillar was stolen from the cemetery by a local stoneworker for [unsuccessful] repurposing.) Research continues to uncover these missing historical details. Engaging an international team of researchers, coordinated by Dr. Heidi Szpek, these researchers include Yiddish specialist Beate Schützmann-Krebs (Germany), Information Systems Specialist, Susan Pasquariella (New York) and BCRF volunteer and historian Frank Idzikowski (US) in collaboration with The Place Jewish Museum, Dr. Tomasz Wisniewski (Bialystok) and in consultation with YIVO archivists Ruby Landau-Pincus. Updates to the chronology of the Memorial Pillar will be presented at the Memorial Pillar’s rededication in Bialystok on Sunday, August 11, 2024!

New Historical Discoveries

Last year, the BCRF rescued 123 boulder matzevoth from a mound on unused Bagnowka land. This year, 20 boulder matzevoth and one Orthodox tombstone were extracted from a mound on Central Park, all tombstones originally from the Rabbinic Cemetery that now is buried beneath Bialystok’s Central Park. Permission to conduct these rescue missions was historic given that for nearly 60 years they were buried, becoming the subject of urban legend. Urban legend was twice proven to be fact. Tombstones and human remains were indeed dumped and buried in the respective mounds amidst post-WWII Communism. The reality of these legends seemed to reverberate with even more discoveries. Behind casual comments and stories are often kernels of historical truth.

The first such discovery was an historic photo of Chief Rabbi Shmuel Mohilewer’s ohel. Aerial photography had confirmed that what the BCRF believed to be the foundations of his ohel was indeed so. Tucked into a video from Rabbi Mohilewer’s followers in Mazkeret Batya, a clear image of his ohel can be seen, dating to 1929. This visual will be beneficial to the design concept of Bialystok’s Polytecnik architect, Prof. Jerzy Uscinowicz as he prepares the plans for a future symbolic ohel in Bagnowka on the foundations of his former burial site and ohel. Readers may remember that in 1991, Rabbi Mohilewer’s remains were exhumed by his followers and transferred to the Mazkeret Batya cemetery in Israel. His ohel there bears a striking resemblance to his original ohel on Bagnowka.

Another such discovery was an exceptional historic photo of the Bagnowka burial house. The BCRF had long known a burial house existed on Bagnowka as indicated in aerial photography, maps and an historic photo that showed an external view of the ruins. A chance revisit to Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute by Dr. Tomasz Wisniewski found a perfectly preserved photo, revealing just how massive this burial house was. Two multi-chambered structures are joined by a large semi-circle gated entrance. An unmarked photo of that entrance had earlier been discovered by Dr. Wisniewski. The pieces of this puzzle have come together! Today, ruins of this structure are buried beneath a large mound just inside Bagnowka’s main entrance. In the early 2010s, ASF leader Dr. Andreas Kahr (Berlin), with permission, had conducted a test trench of this mound, revealing remnants of a brick wall. Future plans hope to see a small visitors center built at this location.

As 2023 comes to an end, perhaps the most unexpected discovery was yet to occur. We know that two ohalim once existed in Bagnowka. Rabbi Mohilewer’s (d. 1898) as just noted, and Rabbi Chaim Hertz Halpern’s (d. 1921), which still stands on the knoll just up from Bagnowka’s main entrance. Aerial photography and historic records confirm their existence. But … there was a third ohel! Once again, Dr. Tomasz Wisniewski discovered a historic post-WWII photo, which reveals that the third ohel was adjacent to that of Rabbi Chaim Halpern’s ohel! On returning to aerial photos, this makes sense as the double-structure is visible. This ohel was made of brick like that of Rabbi Mohilewer’s and the cemetery walls. Bricks and many tombstones were removed post-War for construction projects, thus explaining why it no longer exists. The question is: Whose ohel was this? The reader may remember that Rabbi Halpern’s ohel has a large opening on its western side, presumably where his inscription may have been inserted. This new ohel would obscure that opening. What individual would be so distinguished as to permit this western side to be no longer externally visible?

A chance reference, discovered by BCRF Frank Idzikowski, gave Dr. Szpek a clue to a potential candidate: “There is indeed an ohel on the grave of Chaim Naftali Hertz Halpern that has been vandalized. Only the actual concrete building remains, but inside no gravestone. A faded inscription of the donation of the NY congregation can still be seen. The outline of his son-in-law’s gravestone can be seen connected to the grave.” This 2003 comment on the IAJGS website may be imprecise but it holds value. Rabbi Halperin’s ohel was constructed in 1921. Historic photos indicate no adjacent structure existed at the time of its construction, suggesting whoever was buried in this ohel died after 1921. Researching Rabbi Halpern’s family tree, we learn that his daughter, Miriam Halpern married David Faians, who died in 1935. Faians was a distinguished rabbi in Bialystok, indeed, David Sohn’s Photo Album calls him a Chief Rabbi and “the founder of many orthodox institutions in Bialystok, and leader of the Mizrachi Organization in Poland (p. 22)”. In this case, he may have been a prominent rabbi not the Chief Rabbi as that position was held by Rabbi Dr. Gedaliah Rozenman (1920-1943). On June 1, 1919, Rabbi Faians did greet Marshal Jozef Pilsudski at the Bialystok train station, suggesting his community status. The restoration efforts of the BCRF in this area provide additional support: burials in the row with Rabbi Halpern began in 1919, when he died. The next rows eastward continue from 1919-1925 BUT the very front (west) row in this section has three burials: 1936, 1937 and 1937. Rabbi Faians’ death/ohel in 1935 would begin this row. It makes sense that such a distinguished son-in-law, who was also a rabbi and scholar, would share a wall with his father-in-law.

1966 Aerial. Two ohalim (bottom) and Mohilewer (top).

The name Faians is also familiar to the BCRF through his Rabbi Faians’ son, Aryeh Leib Faians, a distinguished and beloved teacher in Bialystok, a scholar of the Hebrew language, who eventually emigrated to Israel where he became a member of the National Institute for the Hebrew Language. This Faians translated the Hebrew poem, “Pillar of Sorrow” by Zalman Schneour into Yiddish, which is found on the Memorial Pillar. And so, it would seem, we have come full circle … back to the Memorial Pillar, the restoration par excellence by the BCRF in 2023!

Stay tuned in early 2024 for the next year’s restoration plans as the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Fund continues to reconnect the disparate. To donate, please visit our GoFundMe.

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